Why We Can Remember the Holocaust

“[T]he most distinctive feature of history as an academic discipline,” I once argued, “is the relative paucity of the sources available. All we’ve got to go on are whatever artifacts survive the passing of time, and most of those sources erode. Past supporting preservation and archival efforts (including oral history projects), there’s not much historians can do about this. We can’t retire to our laboratories and test theories by running experiment after experiment. There’s no petri dish or computer simulation in which we can reliably recreate historical change over time. And unlike our friends in the social sciences, we can’t design a survey to administer to the dead.”

All we’ve got is evidence.

Which is why (among many, many other reasons) that I despise Holocaust denial so much. Not only do we have an enormous amount of evidence about the attempt to exterminate Jews during World War II, but we have it because both the perpetrators and victims of the Shoah worked very hard to provide us with that evidence!

Fritzsche, Iron WindThat was the theme at the core of my Anxious Bench post this week. Looking ahead to today (International Holocaust Remembrance Day), I borrowed from the final chapter of Peter Fritzsche’s An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler. He points out, first, that Germans invested a great deal of effort in documenting murders that they thought history would celebrate: encouraging soldiers to create artifacts of the Einsatzgruppen slaughter in the Soviet Union; inviting novelists, poets, and other writers to visit the front to see the slaughter for themselves; putting “‘loving care’ into the commemoration of the ‘proud work” of destroying the Warsaw Ghetto”; etc. “Although they faced difficulties integrating the violence into their overall accounts of German history,” concludes Fritzsche, “the perpetrators were quite straightforward about documenting the ‘final solution.’ Almost all the documentary evidence of the murders of Jews comes from the Germans themselves.”

But they were opposed by Jewish scholars like the heroic historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who mobilized a stunning effort to preserve evidence of life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto (and was shot with his family in 1944). Ringelblum’s archive — buried underground to protect it from the Nazis — consisted of tens of thousands of diaries, interview transcripts, letters, photos, drawing, ration cards, concert programs, and other documents. Two of the three deposits have been recovered; the largest is still missing, presumably buried somewhere under Poland’s capital.

Oneg Shabbat exhibit in Warsaw
An exhibit about Ringelblum’s archive at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw — Wikimedia

Fritzsche concludes the moving account with an observation that presents us with an important challenge:

[I]t is astonishing how much faith the chroniclers of the persecution had in the conscience of humanity. It was a conscience, they thought, that had to be shaken, perhaps, or screamed at, but there was nevertheless tremendous confidence that the postwar world would recognize the suffering of the Jews and exact vengeance on the perpetrators. Ghetto chroniclers repeatedly conjured up ‘future historians’ who would know how to appreciate what had been written down… Indeed, most diarists writing in the ghettos and in the underground saw themselves as chroniclers for a posterity in which humane and enlightened civilization has been restored.

“May we remember them and the other victims,” I closed my post, “and so fulfill their faith in us.”

Read the full post here.